Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Rivas Redux

9781137440938Last month I published a response to Titus Rivas’s review of my recently published book on survival.  Subsequent to my response, Rivas modified and expanded his original review. Actually, he’s published three separate pieces discussing his original review and my response: his Short Review (revised with corrections and a postscript), a response to my response, and a supplemental piece with selected quotations from my book as illustrations of my alleged errors.

While I appreciate that Rivas has acknowledged his misrepresentation of both my religious orientation and earlier book on natural theology, I’m afraid that the more serious issues relevant to the cogency of my book’s main argument have gone unaddressed. Indeed, his subsequent responses actually amplify the problems that vitiate his original review. Most generally stated, these are three. First, Rivas has failed to demonstrate an adequate understanding of my central argument.  Second, he’s failed to show how his various points undermine or otherwise challenge my central argument. Third, despite my providing clearly stated arguments against the three objections presented in his original review, Rivas proclaims dialectical victory without offering a single counter-argument against any of my reasoned criticisms.

Does Rivas understand the main argument of my book? No, and for all the reasons canvassed in my initial response. His insistence that he understands my argument is baffling, especially since (a) he’s provided no evidence in support of this and (b) I’ve provided very clear reasons that demonstrate the contrary.  Of course, there’s a very easy solution here. Rivas can succinctly state my argument and dial in specifically how it’s defective. But Rivas hasn’t done this.  This was a crucial problem in his original review, and it’s exacerbated by his subsequent failure to critically engage any of the reasons I presented for supposing that his understanding of my argument is defective. Instead, he’s opted to generate a very dramatic and emotionally charged defense, constructed almost exclusively out of question begging assertions, protracted ad hominem digressions, and an assortment of red herrings.

Let me provide some illustrations.

In response to the reasons I offered for supposing that Rivas doesn’t understand my argument, he writes, “It seems very difficult for Sudduth to grasp the difference between rejecting his analysis and misunderstanding it, as if anyone who does not agree with him must be dumb, denying death, or indolent, or a combination of these” (“Comments on a Response”).  The distinction between rejecting my analysis and misunderstanding it is actually very easy to grasp, just as easy as asserting without evidence – as Rivas does – that the distinction is difficult for me to grasp.  The problem here is that Rivas is offering a response that assumes that he understands my argument. But that’s precisely what’s in question, and it’s what I’ve argued is false. He’s simply begging the question against my argument. A proper response at this juncture would be to address the reasons I presented that challenge the accuracy of his interpretation of my argument. Rivas hasn’t done this.

As I explained in my original blog response, the failure to state my argument is not without negative consequence for Rivas. It’s counterproductive to his obvious interest in raising relevant objections and defending the integrity of his critical review. However, without doing the proper expository work, he’s unable to show, for example, that my arguments are guilty of taking onboard the implausible assumptions he attributes to them. He’s also unable to show that his specific claims about the ostensible evidence for survival, even if correct, are relevant to my argument, or how exactly his claims are relevant. So Rivas has disabled his own critique.

Another illustration. In his response, Rivas continues to raise the specter of the motivational aspect of certain cases of the reincarnation type and the alleged “implausibility” of the assumptions that must be enlisted by the living-agent psychic functioning hypothesis to accommodate this feature of the cases. In other words, appeals to living-agent psi, if they are to accommodate some crucial strands of data, can only do so at the cost of a significant loss of plausibility. This point is presented as a criticism of my argument. OK. But this criticism needs to be dialed into my argument in some intelligible manner. To do this requires that Rivas show how his point actually impacts my argument. He’s not done this. Needless to say, a precondition of doing so is that Rivas actually state my argument. He’s also not done this.

In the light of the noted deficiencies, let me make my challenge to Rivas very clear. He should state my argument (ideally in standardized form – with the premises and conclusion clearly stated) and then show by way of a clear counter-argument how his point concerning “motivation” refutes my argument. I ask that he be as specific as possible. Does he think his point is evidence against a premise in my argument? If so, which one? He should state it. Or does he think that adding his point to the premises of my argument somehow blocks the inference to my stated conclusion? If so, he should show this. In the absence of a counter-argument of this sort, the contention that he’s refuted my argument has a credence index precariously hovering somewhere near zero.

I’d be interested in seeing Rivas meet this very explicit challenge. It would at least clarify what precisely he finds unacceptable about my argument. As it stands, I have no idea what exactly he rejects. It would also be a wonderful way for Rivas to prove that I don’t understand my own argument, which must surely be the case if Rivas actually understands it. After all, I maintain (and the point was broached in my original response to Rivas) that my argument is consistent with the claim that there are some data the living-agent psi hypothesis doesn’t plausibly accommodate. Presumably Rivas thinks my argument involves a denial of this claim or perhaps that my argument is otherwise weakened or compromised if the claim is true, otherwise his claim wouldn’t be a very sensible basis for objecting to my argument. He should show this. Thus far, he’s not done so.

It’s true, of course, that Rivas makes some claims that are apparently incompatible with some of what I claim in my book. For example, he says: “So if we start, as I do, from a substance dualist ontology, we do not even need to make any new assumption, but we can simply build on something that already follows from substance dualism in general” (1/15/16 postscript to “Short Review”). If Rivas intends to say here that the survival hypothesis can have sufficient explanatory power in the absence of the auxiliary assumptions discussed in chapter nine of my book, then his claim contradicts the conclusion I drew from the auxiliary assumption requirement (applied to explanatory survival arguments). But in that case he must show how substance dualism would lead us to expect the data alleged as evidence for survival. Merely denying one of my claims (be it a premise or conclusion) doesn’t constitute a refutation of my argument, especially when there’s substantial argumentation purporting to provide evidence against what Rivas claims. Rivas’s failure to state my argument has prevented him from dialing in his criticism in a way that’s responsive to what I’ve actually argued.

Contrary to Rivas’s unsupported assertion, substance dualism by itself doesn’t lead us to expect any of the relevant data adduced as evidence for survival. Hence, it’s explanatorily vacuous, unless it’s “bulked up” with auxiliary assumptions. But as I explain in chapter nine of my book, there’s a vast range of assumptions from which to choose. Depending on which ones we select, we get at least a dozen different conceivable models of survival consistent with substance dualism but which would not lead us to expect the data alleged as evidence for survival. Unless we can distribute our credence over these auxiliaries in a way that non-trivially favors one narrow band of auxiliary assumptions over the rest, we simply cannot argue that the data are more to expected given survival than some rival hypothesis. Indeed, we cannot say how the world should look if survival is true. If Rivas thinks otherwise, and wishes to offer something more than an assertion, he should probably respond to the arguments in chapter nine of my book. He must either reject the general auxiliary assumption requirement for explanatory reasoning or reject my particular application of it to explanatory survival arguments. There’s no other option. But again, Rivas hasn’t provided a reasoned account of any of this.

What about those three objections to my book featured in his initial review? I explicitly addressed each one of these objections, which – among other things – involved his attributing claims or assumptions to my argument that I contend are not involved in my argument. I had also noted Rivas’s failure to textually justify these false attributions.  Yet, despite his lengthy follow-up responses, including an entire blog that purports to respond to my response to his initial review, Rivas manages not to address a single one of my counter-arguments to his three objections. He dismisses my counter-arguments, along with the dialectical responsibility of addressing them, by merely asserting that they’re “less relevant” and “amount to empty sophistry.” Now I’m not opposed to ostentatious claims. I make them myself when the occasion merits.  However, I do my best to make sure that they’re little more than a colorful garnish on full plate of argument. It’s unclear why Rivas thinks his own ostentatious claims should go without support, but it certainly provides yet another illustration of his failure to produce an argument when it’s most needed.

And how would a salient argument go at this juncture? If I present reasons for denying Rivas’s claim that my argument relies on a particular assumption, he must show how my argument is saddled with the assumption. (In fact, he should have done this in his original review.) If I correctly note that he’s not provided textual support for views he attributes to me, he should offer that support or explain why it’s not necessary to do so. If I show that he’s unable to properly engage my argument without stating it, he should either state my argument or show why he can properly engage the argument without stating it. What is unproductive, indeed fallacious, is merely to repeat the very points that I’ve argued are false or otherwise ignore reasons offered up for consideration.

Just to clarify, I’m not claiming that Rivas offers no argumentation at all. It’s that he fails to do so when it matters most. And the latter point is important. It would be unreasonable to demand that Rivas provide reasons for every claim he makes, but his commentary is so vitiated by unsupported assertions, on precisely the points for which I’ve provided argument, that neither human fallibility nor global constraints of space and time provide an adequate defense against the charge that Rivas hasn’t met his responsibilities as a critical reviewer, especially as one who purports to be an advocate of civilized and egalitarian debate.  This problem is pervasive in his responses.

Rivas also issues me a challenge. “Perhaps Michael Sudduth will one day have the courtesy and courage to publicly reveal his personal stance on survival (agnosticism, personal survival, personal extinction, or whatever), even if it is still only tentative.” Setting aside the utter irrelevance of this to the cogency of the arguments in my book (which is the central issue), Rivas has once again betrayed his culpable ignorance of matters of fact.  I have repeatedly discussed my “personal stance” on survival.  In fact, I devoted an entire (5,600 word) blog on this topic in August 2015 – Personal Reflections on Life after Death. While I have a large archive of blog entries spanning the past three years, this is one of the several that has been featured on my website for the last eight months. It appears in both the recent blog archive list in the website widget (which is on the right-hand side of every page of my website), and it’s also highlighted in the center of my main page.

Finally, Rivas characterizes my “program” as destructive.

As I said before, I view Sudduth’s program as destructive. This is because he has given his disturbing diagnosis of survival research such an irrefutable formulation that there seems to be no hope the field will ever progress beyond its supposed impasse. Like myself, many readers will want to know how Sudduth could conceptualize his program as anything else than highly negative. What solution does Sudduth plan to offer that would go beyond a draw between (just) LAP and survival (besides LAP)? (“Comments on a Response”)

I’m actually not offering a general “program” of any sort in my book. I’m offering a diagnosis of what’s wrong with classical empirical arguments for survival. I made this clear in my introductory chapter. Nor is my diagnosis, disturbing as it may be, intended as a complete epistemology of belief in survival.  I make this clear in the final four paragraphs of my book, as well as in the introductory chapter.  Nothing I argue entails that there’s “no hope” for progress. To be sure, my limited scope project in the book is negative and deconstructive. This is trivially true since I’m arguing that the classical arguments are unsuccessful. But it’s fallacious to infer from this that there’s some larger program that should be characterized in like manner.  Of course, the cogency of my arguments doesn’t hang on whether the classical arguments can be fixed, successfully reformulated, or whether there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for survivalists. And I’m certainly not obligated to lead survivalists into the light.

Having said this, as I made clear in my book, if the empirical survival debate is to advance, it’s important to wheel away the rubbish that has increasingly cluttered the conversation for the past century. Much of this rubbish has amassed in area of evidence assessment and its interface with explanatory criteria, which is partially why I chose to focus on the logic of survival arguments. Methodologically speaking, this is the first step in the direction of any sensible recontextualization of the project (broadly construed). Moreover, I chose to deploy techniques and modes of analysis that have been successfully used to advance discussion in other areas of philosophy. If survivalists are uncomfortable with these techniques and modes of analysis, they should propose their own. And if they can at least sufficiently wrap their minds around what I have argued, and just sit with the disturbing diagnosis for a bit, the road ahead might be viewed with greater clarity.

I’ve indicated in my book and blog the direction in which we might move for a positive reconstruction. There’s much more to be said on this topic, and I’ve been very clear about my intention to do so. But I’m in no hurry, and I’m content just to see where it all goes. I’m presently enjoying conversations with others working on the topic of survival, including some preliminary discussions on a possible collaborative project.  I personally find more satisfaction in the exploration itself than in the results, which must always be limited and tentative in my view. This is why my views on survival have evolved over the last decade. Anyhow, surely survivalists like Rivas who demand a “plan” or “cure” are capable of putting their own hand to the plow. I look forward to seeing what the best of their intellectual acumen and passion produces.

Michael Sudduth

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